10 November 2012

How to Grad School: Presenting in Conferences

Presenting in conferences is also a very important part of graduate school. After all, one is developing a name for oneself in this process. This ties back to the previous articles I wrote in this series, about taking tests versus writing papers. The thing is, if one writes a term paper for a class, then that also has the probability of being presented in a conference, assuming that the topic is original enough. If one simply took a test, then this possibility is not present at all.

So, assuming that one is writing papers that deal on original research topics for one’s coursework, then one can hopefully present these, assuming that the quality is high enough to be able to pass the reviewers. Assuming that it is, then one gets to present one’s work in conferences, and one slowly builds a name for oneself.

With respect to conference presentations, I highly stress the importance of talking to one’s adviser or faculty member before submitting abstracts for presentations. In my former department, we had an internal rule where there should be one faculty that would read and approve the abstract first, before it can be submitted for conference review. Why is this?

The reason is because most, if not all, academic departments would like to preserve a brand of their own as well. Graduate students are still academics-in-training, and so people still do not trust graduate students to be good researchers. And sometimes, an abstract gets accepted, but who knows, the quality might not be good, and the the student goes to present this work, and the presentation eventually turns out to be bad, and so it creates not only a bad impression for the student, but as well as for the faculty. Faculty definitely would not want that to happen. When I was in graduate school, I always had to have my abstracts checked by some other faculty, most of the time, my adviser. Most of the time, that was not a problem for me, since my sub-field is highly collaborative anyway, and there was always a faculty member who was a co-author, which then effectively erased that problem. However, for other sub-fields, it is common to have a sole author, and when this is the student, then it is highly recommended that the abstract be shown to the faculty first, before it gets out. Seriously, it saves everyone from potential embarrassing clean-ups.

Now assuming that the abstract gets in, then a conference is an exciting affair. You get to network, you get to meet other scholars in your field, you meet your academic crushes, if you happen to have those. I think it is a good idea to realize that there’s a wide world outside of one’s department, that there are people out there who have ideas that might be radically different from your own. I have met a few people who were so focused into their own corner of science, looking at phenomena through their own lenses, that they find it hard to comprehend that there are other people who have other lenses, and who look at the world from a different point of view. I personally think that this is important, as I spent a good 7 years in an academic department who is more known to be an adherent of the minority view, when it comes to my field of study.

One final thing that I would like to stress when it comes to conference presentations, is that this is a good way to build one’s CV. Having presented in conferences means that one’s work has been subjected through peer review (sure, it’s not as hectic as journal articles, but the abstract review process is still a type of peer review), and it has been found to be interesting by others. That shows that one has the potential to do good research.

(Curved Path, from my Central Park Series)


  1. The first one must be quite scary! But I'm sure after it gets easier, speaking in public and all.

    1. Zhu,

      Yes, I remember my very first conference presentation; it was actually before I even started graduate school. I had an abstract that got accepted in a conference that was held the summer before my first semester in grad school, and I was so unprepared. Or rather, I prepared wrong. I had no handouts, I had no slides (rather, I thought using the text of my paper as a slide was good enough; in the end I realized that was weird), and I was so many minutes undertime.

      Now whenever I have talks, I make sure that doesn't happen again. :-)